At a bus station an hour south of Gallipoli, an elderly Englishman with a gentle manner handed me his business card. The Venerable Geoffrey B. Evans, OBE., M.A, formerly British Embassy Chaplain & Archdeacon of the Aegean and the Danube (as his card read) was a veteran of dozens of Anzac day services. His travelling companion, a young Turkish convert to the faith, referred to him simply as ‘Father’. In a weird throwback to my Christian education, I felt compelled to do so too.
Father Geoffrey has lived on the Aegean coast of Turkey for almost forty years, and as the representative of the Church of England in the area was responsible for the remembrance services at Gallipoli from the mid-70’s to the 90’s. It was a different beast when he started:
“It used to be run by the British you see. We’d stay in huts across from Anzac Cove and wander down in the morning for the service. There were usually about twenty of us or so, mostly just embassy staff. Now it’s totally different – light shows and stadiums and politicians giving speeches for television audiences.”
Formerly a multinational commemoration, the ceremonies on the 25th of April are now dominated by Australians. They flood the country in the lead up, wearing tour jumpers that brazenly advertise they are here to commemorate a failed invasion. “It’s so strange”, said a Frenchman who witnessed a tour group pass by, “it’s like the Germans coming to France with tops saying ‘PARIS 1940’.” Maybe a bit, although the Turks are very welcoming of the Australian visitors. Many locals even speak English with an Aussie twang, and somewhat unnaturally throw the word ‘mate’ into every second sentence.
I arrived at Anzac Cove in early April on a tour from Eceabat. Dozens of Turks were at work putting up enormous temporary grandstands that would soon be groaning under the weight of young Australians, with flags draped around their shoulders and painted on their faces. Thousands more would be waiting in stands up the hill at the Lone Pine memorial for the second service. Many of the attendees of the services would be convinced that they share character traits with the men who landed there by virtue of their common nationality, such traits including: endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour, larrikinism and mateship (according to the Wikipedia definition of ‘Anzac Spirit’). A senior government minister will arrive and tell the crowds that they are keeping the Anzac Spirit alive. Millions of people at home will watch television clips of the service, despite the fact that it is exactly the same ritual as last year.
This intense focus on Gallipoli is a relatively recent thing. Father Geoffrey remembers when Bob Hawke spoke to a crowd of a little over 2,000 attendees in 1990 (the words ‘Anzac Spirit’ and ‘mateship’ are conspicuously absent from the transcript of the speech). By the year 2000 the crowds were up around the 15,000 mark, and they peaked at 20,000 on the ninetieth anniversary. The hundredth anniversary in 2015 is expected to be so big that a ballot system will be used to allocate seats.
The figures are baffling to Father Geoffrey: “I don’t understand how it got so big so quickly.” For Australians who lived through the prime-ministership of John Winston Howard, it is not such a mystery. The metamorphosis of Anzac Day from a commemoration of the country’s war dead to a celebration of a mythical national character encapsulated in Gallipoli was a major victory in the history wars. It was helped along by Anzac Day clashes, when football players are given medals for demonstrating the Anzac Spirit, but more importantly it was enabled by the extinction of the Gallipoli veterans. Their deaths cleared the path to sainthood and left nobody to protest against the growing hyperbole. The Spirit of Anzac was the panacea for the country’s insecurity about its short history and lack of a clear national identity.
Back on the tour our Turkish guide took us up to the Nek, a patch of ground eighty metres wide by twenty-seven metres long where 372 Australians were killed in perhaps the most pointless attack of the campaign (depicted in the final scene of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli). It is eerie to stand in such a small space where so many people were slaughtered for no reason, particularly when those people are so easy to identify with. It also made me frustrated, both with the commanders who were so careless with the young lives in their hands, and with the Australians who so compliantly ran to their deaths in vain. CEW Bean – the Australian historian who first proposed the Spirit of Anzac – believed that such “reckless valour” was an integral part of the Anzac character, however at the Nek it just seemed foolish.
Throughout the day our guide told us stories of valour from the Turkish side: the soldier who charged an Anzac machine gun armed only with a rock; the Turk who climbed out of his trench to carry a wounded Anzac back to the Australian trenches; the little touches of humour and humanity amongst the Turkish troops in the midst of the horror. It became clearer and clearer that the Turks had developed their own mythology about Gallipoli, one which almost mirrored ours. I thought about how I had swallowed the stories at school that implied that bravery and concern for others were the sole preserve of Australians.
Gallipoli is a very sad place, but going there only confirmed my suspicions that the Anzac Spirit is a confection that bears little relation to the truth, and at times flatly contradicts it. Take this quote from John Howard’s address at the ninetieth anniversary of the landing:
“Those who fought here in places like Quinn’s Post, Pope’s Hill and the Nek changed forever the way we saw our world and ourselves…. They sharpened our democratic temper and our questioning eye towards authority.”
Sharpened our questioning eye towards authority? By committing suicide on command? Nonsense. Like the millions of other victims of WWI, including the Turks in the opposite trenches, the Anzacs at Gallipoli did exactly what they were told. I’m not having a go at them either; it’s the same submissive impulse that caused me to refer to an old man I was not related to and would never see again as Father.